In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.
(Matthew 2:1)

Translation is an important art. It matters how we take words written in one language and translate them into another. This is particularly true with Matthew 2:1.

Sadly in the early nineteenth century the Rev. John Henry Hopkins of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont hijacked Matthew 2:1 and forever shaped popular perception of the strange visitors who came to honour the child Jesus.  The Rev. Hopkins got a few things terribly wrong when he read the story of the travelers who came to honour the child newly born to Mary in Bethlehem.

The Greek as we have received it, records Matthew 2:1 to have said:

του δε ιησου γεννηθεντος εν βηθλεεμ της ιουδαιας εν ημεραις ηρωδου
του βασιλεως ιδου μαγοι απο ανατολων παρεγενοντο εις ιεροσολυμα
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
wise men from the East came to Jerusalem (NRSV)

In his famous Epiphany hymn, the Rev. Hopkins embellished the phrase “ιδου μαγοι απο ανατολων παρεγενοντο εις ιεροσολυμα” with a few poetic flourishes entirely of his own creation writing,

We three kings of Orient are.

There is no mention in Matthew’s text anywhere of “kings”. And nowhere is it specified that there were three; “Orient” is certainly not in the original text. Whatever the number of visitors and, wherever they came from, they were certainly not “kings” and probably not even generic “wise men”.

David Bentley Hart, in a footnote in his New Testament translation writes,

μαγοι (magoi): either “Magians” (men of the Zoroastrian priestly caste of the Persians and Medes, largely associated in the Hellenistic mind with oneiromancy and astrology) or “sorcerers” (in the later usage, but obviously not here); it is a word that never merely means “wise” or “learned” men.

These”magoi” visitors were priests, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, or sorcerers. It is not hard to see why The Rev. Hopkins might have been a little squeamish with many of the more accurate translations. But “kings” is simply wrong, and wise men not entirely honest.

The Rev. Hopkins also got it wrong when he indicated these magoi came from the “Orient”. “Orient” is a colonialist term that locates Europe as the geographical centre of the world and Asia, therefore as “east”. It is a bit like identifying the place where I live as “the Pacific Northwest.” Pacific is ok. We are after all perched on the tip of an island surrounded on all sides by the mighty waters of the Pacific Ocean. But “north”? “north” of what and “west” of where? Why aren’t we the Pacific Southeast? South of the Arctic Circle and east of Japan? In reality these early visitors came from the direction of the rising sun.

It is all a matter of perspective and, when it comes to translation, like life, perspective is vital.

A more literal translation of the phrase the Rev. Hopkins mangled to his own liking, would more accurately read something like:

behold magoi from the place of the rising sun came to Jerusalem.

No place for “kings”, certainly no place for “Orient”. This is important because the world does not need more kings and would be much better off with far less myopic colonialism.

But the world does need more “seers”, more “interpreters” of the times, more people who find their way by the stars and live with an awareness of the numinous. That’s what these magoi did. They navigated by a different compass.

So, how did they get there? What was it about these magoi that made it possible for them to see in a child an worthy object of their devotion? What perspective did they bring that made it possible for these visitors to experience the divine presence born in a child?

We may find some pointers to suggest possible responses to these questions as we journey towards Epiphany and look perhaps a little more carefully at Matthew’s text than the Rev Hopkins did when he wrote his famous hymn.